Photograph by Josh McCulloch, Parks Canada
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Hikers cross a suspended bridge on the West Coast Trail in Pacific Rim National Park Reserve.
Photograph by Josh McCulloch, Parks Canada

Pacific Rim National Park Reserve

Location: British Columbia
Date Established: 1970
Size: 126,500 acres

Few people forget the first time they walk out onto seemingly infinite Long Beach, a 10-mile strip of undeveloped coastline set against a backdrop of lush emerald rain forest and distant mountains. One of Canada’s most visited tourist attractions, the beach attracts surfers, beachcombers, and marine life enthusiasts.

Park Facts

Three-Part Park Skirting the western fringe of Vancouver Island, Long Beach is the most northern of three park units, a 34,800-acre chunk of beach-fronted coastal temperate rain forest, and since 2000, a core protected area of the Clayoquot Sound UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve. The shoreline stretches roughly between the town of Tofino in the north and Ucluelet in the south.

Long Beach Hideout Unknown to the world before 1959, when a road was punched across the width of Vancouver Island, the beach became an end-of-world refuge for draft dodgers, hippies, and surfers until 1970, when the beach settlements were evicted for the new national park. Much of the laid-back vibe of that earlier era remains.

Water-Access Only Directly to the east of Ucluelet are the Broken Group Islands—an archipelago of more than a hundred tiny, rugged islands at the center of Barkley Sound, a popular kayak destination. Only about 13,950 acres of land is found across the 26,440 acres of ocean park area; this maze of waterways and channels is accessible by watercraft only.

Shipwreck Path The southernmost area is the 10,130-acre West Coast Trail unit, named for the 47-mile hiking path through pristine rain forest between Port Renfrew and Bamfield. The trail was established in 1907 as an emergency rescue path for shipwrecked mariners after 120 people died when the Valencia ran aground on a reef near Pachena Point during a gale.

Native Culture The unifying elements of these three different units are water, rain forest, and the native Nuu-chah-nulth culture. Present in the Pacific Rim area for thousands of years, these master mariners and whale hunters utilized the natural resources for trade and sustainability and often battled the waves of Spanish, then British (and later Americans) who descended on the coast in the late 18th century to exploit furs, timber, and whale oil. Today 7 of 15 Nuu-chah-nulth tribes maintain at least 22 small reserves within the park boundaries and nine at the border of the park; they are active partners in park administration and interpretive programs.

How to Get There

Long Beach is the only one of the park’s three units that can be explored by car—and you will need one. From Victoria: travel northwest on Hwy. 19, take the Hwy. 4 exit about 21 miles past Nanaimo. (Hwy. 4 is beautiful but dangerous: It has steep grades, little room for passing, and traffic congestion in the summer.) Budget three hours for the drive from Nanaimo. From Vancouver, take a ferry from West Vancouver’s Horseshoe Bay ferry terminal to Nanaimo and proceed to Hwy. 4. A right turn at the Tofino–Ucluelet junction leads to the Long Beach area. The highway runs through the park for 14 miles, with the town of Tofino at its end.

When to Go

For most activities at Long Beach, visit between June and Labour Day (the first Monday in September). Book ahead for accommodation during this time. For storm-watching and advanced surfing, the winter is best—fearsome winter gales can rip this coastline, conjuring waves 26 feet high, and dropping up to 19 inches of rain in a single day. The West Coast Trail is open between May and late September.

How to Visit

Most visitors stay for longer than a day, basing themselves in Tofino or Ucluelet. If a day is all you have, focus on Long Beach—roughly between the Tofino-Ucluelet junction and Wickaninnish Beach—where rain forest hikes, beach and tide pool exploration, and a surf lesson will easily fill a day.

Spend a second day whale watching and exploring the northern reaches of the park: Walk the sand dunes and tidal pools in Schooner Cove and look for wildlife in the sheltered, kayak-friendly Grice Bay. End the day with a dinner and walkabout in Tofino or Ucluelet (just beyond the northern park boundary), the best bases of operations for any park visit.

The weeklong West Coast Trail requires both advanced backcountry experience and substantial advance planning. The best way to see the Broken Group Islands is by boat. The Port Alberni-based M.V. Frances Barkley, a 120-foot passenger ferry, offers day trips through the islands June through mid-September.

—Text adapted from the 2011 National Geographic book Guide to the National Parks of Canada